Opinion – Setting the Mood

Welcome to the jungle.  The acoustics are atrocious.

I’m currently typing this article in my apartment.  I’m sitting in a computer chair surrounded by my mess with easy access to my (empty) fridge and an open window showing a pleasant flurry outside.  The reflected snow light washes out my screen a bit, but the black letters on Word’s white background hardly show it or the film of dust between me and these words.  I am currently in the ideal environment for writing.

I am in a poor environment for gaming.

Though often ignored beyond the comfy couch or TV size, the environment in which we play is one of the most important factors in the enjoyment of a game.  Like any activity, gaming is best done in an atmosphere that supports it.  Consider my current situation.  The outside light and dusty screen mute the colors of anything but the blinding white of my word processor.  The dark hues of X-COM 2 would fade while the dust particles would shine.  My noisy PC doesn’t help either and its close proximity to me reduces my immersion.  The constant falling snow flakes catch the corner of my eye with their dancing motions providing yet another distraction.  I could play a game in these conditions, but my enjoyment would lessen.

Of course, what also matters is the kind of game that I’m playing.  Cities: Skylines, a bright and cheery city builder, would do just fine.  The colors better fit the room, the soothing music blends with the mechanical hum, and the gameplay is incredibly immersive.  A more story oriented game requiring reading and cut scene viewing wouldn’t do as well due to the multitude of distractions.  The snow blower outside would undermine my reading while Cities’ addicting gameplay requires little help in that regard.  A horror game would be even worse.  It’s hard to build up a sense of isolation and suspense in a well-lit room with the laughter of children outside.  Other people also have a major effect.  Nothing upends a sense of immersion like a roommate who wants to eat some of your chips during a pivotal scene.  Even if they aren’t intruding, the mere presence of other people can undermine your gaming experience.  Just knowing that someone is listening in on your guilty pleasure can make you feel self-conscious about what’s happening on screen.

This also has a major effect on reviews.  A game I find frustrating may actually be fun to the player who’s committed to a lazy day with a refreshing beverage.  Back pain and a rushed deadline may destroy my investment in a character while another player’s soft pillows and need to relax brings them closer.  Professional reviews are in even more danger of environmental circumstances.  Paid reviewers are offered hotel rooms and high end rigs by publishers looking for a good score.  The difference between “minor technical glitches” and “game breaking bugs” could be the presence of publisher paid IT support standing by to resolve any issues.  Even without deliberately doctoring scores, reviewers can give publishers better ratings if they’re in a favorable situation to review a game.

We don’t often think of the importance of our gaming environment.  Rarely do I hear anyone say: “X game was great!  It really helped that I was able to play in 3 hour chunks and my cat found something else to do!”  Even though we don’t realize it, our gaming environment effects our perception of games and how we react to them.  I’m not sure if there’s a way to incorporate it into reviews (except to decline publisher offers of review enclaves), but I do believe that every person should consider it before gaming.  We’ll all get a lot more from our games if we see them as experiences effected by the world rather than just a thing happening on a screen.

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